If you’re looking for a hobby that fulfills your need for speed, hot air ballooning probably isn’t for you. Hot air balloons are as slow as their blob shape would seem to indicate.
Hot air balloons travel as fast as the wind is blowing. Because they have no forward propulsion system, they will never travel faster than the outside air current. Hot air balloons tend to fly best in a wind that is traveling around five miles per hour, and almost never fly in wind traveling over ten miles per hour.
Depending on your tastes, that may be relieving or disappointing! In any case, there are probably a lot of things that will surprise you about how fast hot air balloons travel. Keep reading to discover more!
What You Can Expect
The question you probably want to be answered is whether or not you should bring your speed goggles on your next hot air balloon ride. The answer is a definite and definitive no.
Hot air balloons only travel as fast as the wind, and they can only fly in slower wind. You can safely expect a relaxed, leisurely flight through the sky.
A Normal Flight
A normal flight tends to begin in the early morning. One reason for that is because the wind tends to be calmer in the morning (plus, the sunrise is really cool!).
Your pilot or ride agency will be keeping a close eye on the weather to determine how safe it is to fly. Assuming everything is favorable, you’ll then get going!
The flight will be slow. Like, really really slow. You’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and relax away from all the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
One of the pros of traveling as fast as the wind is that you normally don’t have to worry about things being blown into your vicinity. You’re like a part of the wind!
This includes not being too worried about having a hat blown off or anything like that. Going slow has some serious perks, especially at such high elevations!
Then, as you land, it should be a fairly innocuous event. There may be a good bump or two, but if the wind is good, it should be an easy set down.
With good wind, that is how a normal flight should go!
It is not too uncommon for a hot air balloon flight to be canceled due to wind or other weather conditions. If this is the case for you, don’t become too frustrated.
Flying in hazardous conditions tends to end really poorly. Your safety is much more important than your schedule. Pilots and ride agencies certainly don’t want to cancel flights, but they do it to keep everyone safe.
Flights can be canceled for rain, lightning, lack of visibility, or other reasons. The most common reason to cancel a flight is definitely high wind speeds.
Traveling too fast in a hot air balloon is simply not safe. Those massive blobs of nylon and air are the manatees of the sky! They like to just drift along according to how fast mother nature pushes them.
If you’re looking for speed, hot air ballooning is probably not for you!
How Fast is too Fast?
So, how fast is too fast? Or, in other words, how much wind is too much wind? It’s a good question because the wind really is the number one factor in determining whether or not a balloon will go up.
Wind also tends to be the number one indicator for how safe it is to fly. In fact, most flight cancellations occur because of wind. That should give you some idea of how important wind is in hot air ballooning.
Most balloons prefer to fly in wind traveling between four and six miles per hour, but why? Well, there are a couple of reasons.
The first thing to consider is taking off. Wind can really affect the success and safety of take off.
The first step in a hot air balloon ride (once you’ve actually gotten to your launch site) is set up. You set out the basket and lay out the envelope to prepare it for inflation.
Once everything is laid out and it’s all connected to the right thing, you start cold inflation. This is done by having someone hold open the throat while a fan blows cold air into the envelope.
Once the envelope is reasonably filled with cold air, the burner is turned on to start heating the air. From there, of course, the envelope becomes completely filled with warm air that raises you off the ground!
If the wind is too strong, the envelope will never become completely filled. This is because the wind will keep the envelope from being completely stretched out.
It’s kind of like the wind will put a “dent” in the envelope preventing the envelope from completely filling. The wind on the outside exerts more pressure on the envelope than the air on the inside.
Even if you do get the envelope completely filled, it could be dangerous to take off in too much wind because you might get blown into a nearby hazard.
Remember that hot air balloons are steered by the wind, so if a gust starts pushing you left, odds are you’re going to go left.
So even filling the envelope all the way doesn’t guarantee a successful or safe take off in windy conditions.
On the other side of the trip from the take off is the landing. It is admittedly my least favorite part of hot air ballooning.
There isn’t enough space on the entire internet to explain why high winds during landing is the worst. Thank goodness for skilled and experienced pilots who can navigate these kinds of situations.
Landing is already arguably the trickiest part of ballooning, but it becomes even more difficult once you introduce lots of wind. Here’s just a handful of things that could go wrong:
- Your basket could spill over. This is admittedly not the worst thing ever, but it sure is annoying. Knee plus rock equals ouch.
- You could damage your basket on a rough landing. Cha-ching! There goes your Bahama vacation.
- You could be one of the people in charge of putting away the envelope. Have fun doing that in the wind!
- You could blow right over your landing zone. Good luck trying to get back or finding a new landing zone!
- You could run into a tree. Or worse, a powerline! This is objectively the worst thing that could possibly happen.
So, yeah. Landing in the wind is the worst. In general, flying in too much wind is the worst. While ballooning is an incredibly safe activity, wind is the number one culprit when things go wrong.
How fast is too fast? Anything that would put people at risk of injury.
Fly Like the Wind
You may be asking by this point why hot air balloons travel at the same speed as the wind. It’s brave of you to ask such a scientifically loaded question!
If you’re not here for a science lesson, it’s best to just skip over this section. We’re about to get very Einstein-y up in here.
The Mechanics of Ballooning
In this section, we’ll try to answer what it is that makes a hot air balloon fly. Only then can we answer why they travel at the same speed as the wind. If you want a more in-depth look at this fascinating subject, click here!
Hot air balloons fly because of the law of buoyancy, also called Archimedes’ principle. This principle states that an object partially or completely submerged in a fluid (liquid or gas) is acted upon by an upward force equal to the amount of fluid displaced by the object.
To illustrate this principle, consider a tennis ball and a led ball of the same size being placed into a pool of water. We all know that the tennis ball would float but the led ball wouldn’t. Why is this?
When completely submerged, both the tennis ball and the led ball displace the same amount of water since they’re the same size. According to Archimedes’ principle, this means they have the same upward force acting on them.
The tennis ball is much lighter than the led ball, so the buoyant force causes it to float. The led ball, being much heavier than the tennis ball, weighs more than the buoyant force and therefore sinks.
Applying this to hot air balloons, because the hot air inside the balloon’s envelope is much lighter than the cool air around the balloon, the balloon rises! The buoyant force is greater than the balloon’s weight.
In other words, the air inside the envelope is less dense than the air outside and the balloon therefore rises.
That’s pretty much all you need to know about why hot air balloons fly! So how does that relate to their speed?
At the Mercy of the Wind
As just repeatedly stated, the air inside a hot air balloon is less dense than the air outside of it. In the world of aviation, that makes hot air balloons a “lighter-than-air aircraft”.
If you’ve ever been pushed by someone bigger than you, you’ve probably already realized what happens when denser air pushes against the envelope filled with less dense air.
The denser air pushes the lighter balloon wherever the air is traveling! The faster the wind travels, the more force it has, and the faster it pushes the hot air balloon.
There’s a lot of complex physics that goes into explaining all of that mathematically, but for practical purposes it really is that simple!
Hot air balloons are filled with less dense air, so the denser air in the wind pushes balloons along!
The Fastest Ever
So now that we’ve covered what you should expect, what to be wary of, and why that is, let’s talk about something really fun: how fast could a hot air balloon travel in theory?
Well, as we already know, a hot air balloon can travel as fast as the wind, and the wind can travel really fast. And, as it just so happens, wind has a huge impact on anything that flies (what a shocker).
For example, a Boeing 787 that normally has a top speed of 587 miles per hour reached 801 miles per hour when it got caught in a record-setting jet stream.
This example in the context of hot air ballooning obviously raises the question: what is the fastest a hot air balloon has ever traveled?
Before we answer that question, there are probably a few things you should consider that will give some added weight to the answer.
Hot air balloons are literally sacks of air connected to baskets or gondolas by chords. It is invisible hot air that holds the balloon in the sky. There are no engines or propellers that help with that.
If the air gets too cool, the envelope tears, your run out of fuel, one of the gas lines starts to leak, lightning strikes, you hit almost anything, or you fly too low, then your flight comes to a sudden (and painful) end.
Hot air balloons are based on theories from the 1700s. They don’t have any protective equipment to protect from accidents or crashes. They are the oldest and still least advanced form of human flight.
With all that in mind, having remembered that it is absolutely ludicrous that hot air balloons fly in the first place, and keeping in mind the list of risks associated with flying in a hot air balloon, here’s the record:
The fastest a hot air balloon has ever traveled is 245 miles per hour.
Yep. 245 miles per hour.
A huge sack of hot air attached to a tiny gondola achieved a ground speed of 245 miles per hour.
It all happened when Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand made the first ever trip across the Pacific Ocean in a hot air balloon back in 1991.
The two broke several records during their historic trip, but my personal favorite is their record for speed, a record which still stands today. In the almost thirty tears since, their record has gone untouched!
That having been said, it’s only a matter of time until some adrenaline junky comes along to break the record! Who knows, it could be you!
Let’s say that you don’t want to go 245 miles per hour in a hot air balloon. How would you change your speed if you’re completely subject to the wind?
It’s pretty simple, actually. It is definitely true that a hot air balloon’s speed is totally subject to the wind, but what if you could change what wind you’re subject to?
Well, that’s actually exactly how you change speed (and direction, for that matter) in a hot air balloon.
You see, not all wind travels at the same speed. As you change elevation, you’ll jump from one jet stream to another. Each one of the streams will be heading a different direction heading at a different speed.
Sometimes you’ll have to change your attitude a lot to find the right stream of wind, but it can usually be done.
In stormy weather, of course, all the wind will be too fast. It’ll just be too fast in different directions! So that is a lose-lose situation. But outside of that, finding the right wind shouldn’t be too hard.
Pilots will use smaller balloons, shaving cream, or weather reading devices to find the wind they want to fly in, and then they’ll go to that altitude! By doing this, a pilot can have a lot of control over their speed.
So while you’re in the air, and in life, remember that your speed is just a matter of your altitude!